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River Stories – A creative program in the heart of Walgett, NSW

Walgett is a small community in north-west NSW, built on the banks of the Namoi and Barwon River and known to the Gamilaroi people as the sacred place where the two rivers meet. Throughout 2019 the community was faced with a number of challenges, including the loss of its only supermarket for the second time in six years and the continuation of the crippling drought.

In 2016 Gomeroi Gaaynggal – a community arts and health research centre through the University of Newcastle – received funding from The Federal Government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy and the National Indigenous Australians Agency to go towards a creative project that would address social, cultural and economical barriers that this isolated community faces on a day to day basis.

Gomeroi Gaaynggal together with the expertise of Outback Arts and 2 Rivers worked to identify a way that creativity could bolster this community.

They explored the notion that Aboriginal women hold the lore of water, and they have a deep spiritual and cultural connection to the land, the sky and the rivers. It is undeniable that if the river and the water is healthy, communities are healthy; but if the water and rivers are desecrated, a community’s social and emotional wellbeing are adversely affected. With the affects of the drought impacting the river systems that run through Walgett, the need to enhance social and emotional wellbeing was identified, and thus a creative project, River Stories evolved.

River Stories aim became to increase the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal women in Walgett through the delivery of creative workshops and activities. These would allow the community to see and use the beauty in the landscape while focusing on leaving a legacy through skills and further skill development.

In the planning stages of River Stories, Executive Director at Outback Arts, Jamie-Lea Trindall and Managing Director of 2 Rivers, Lorrayne Fishenden visited Walgett to undertake community consultation which would assist them in establishing the community’s ideas and aspirations surrounding creative outcomes, that they believed would help to address issues of social and emotional-wellbeing.

The project then saw the execution of a series of creative workshops, lead by Mudgee-based Aboriginal painter, weaver and sculptor, Aleisha Lonsdale who seeks inspiration from issues facing Aboriginal People; Aboriginal Social Documentary Photographer Lexie Reeves; and Singal Creative, an organisation who help women develop their creative interests, unearth opportunities, increase skills and enable self-expression.

The workshops were designed to encourage locals to seek inspiration from the rivers that lay in the heart of their community and to use natural and recycled materials to make their art from the river system that they feel so connected to.

A series of workshops were held across May and June of 2019 and included the practices of needle point and fabric collage, dance and movement, beat-making, poetry and collage, story exchanging and print making for textiles.
There were 154 people, ages ranging from 1 – 65 years old, who participated in the creative workshops; and the project engaged with an audience of more than 1,00 people within the Walgett community.

River Stories also encouraged those who participated to share the knowledge they gained from the project with other members of the community, including the future generation.

River Stories not only further developed creative skills for its participants, it brought people together in a safe space which built self-confidence, created new social connections, positive behaviours and daily routines. The project also started a wider economical conversation as the works made from River Stories could be sold through local stores and Outback Arts stockists. It also attracted visitors to the region who in return spent money with local businesses and accommodation providers.

River Stories was well received within the Walgett community. It created a welcoming and fun environment to be involved in, new skills and cultural concepts to be explored and creative opportunities for locals, and it’s hoped that the project continues in the future.